Local Man Invents Sailing
by Mike Quinn

The little boy was sitting at the end of the dock fishing and I was bored senseless waiting for the wind to come up, so I decided to amuse myself by asking him a question just to see what he would come up with.

“How’s the fishing?”

“Not to good.” he said.

After we talked a little I asked the question. “I was just wondering who you think invented sailing?”

I was surprised when he immediately gave me an answer. He pointed at a boat with the name Rovin’ Tar on the back and said, “That guy over there.”

“Why do you think he invented sailing?” I asked.

The young boy explained to me that his mom and dad had recently bought a sailboat, and the man he called Butcher told them everything they needed to know to make the boat move through the water. I knew Bill Butcher, knew he had been sailing longer than I had but I didn’t know he invented it. So I told the young fisherman I didn’t believe this could be true, and we had better check it out.

Rovin’ Tar at Berthold Bay

He assured me it was true as we walked over toward Rovin’ Tar. Inventing sailing must have been a lot of work because it looked like Butcher was lying in the sun on the back of his boat either sleeping or thinking of his next invention. As we walked closer to his boat he began to stir.

“Bill,” I said, “this guy tells me you invented sailing, is that right?”

“Yes, in fact I did.” Bill replied. The boy looked at me like I was an idiot for even questioning the issue.

“Well tell us how you figured it all out, Bill.”

Bill looked off in the distance for a minute and began to tell us how he did it. “Well, I used to get mad,” he said, “and I wanted to swear like a sailor. I like a nip now and then and I wanted to be able to drink like a sailor, but there were no such things as sailors so I had to invent sailing.

“You know, years ago, before I invented sailing, I needed a way to let people know what I was doing, so I put a pole up on my boat. When I wanted to invite people over I sould run a little flag up the pole. I used the pole for all sorts of flags and all sorts of messages.

One day, after I had washed the sheets, I realized I had no where to dry them. So I ran one end up the pole and tied the other end to the front of the boat. I decided to dry another sheet on the back of the boat. Then it occurred to me that if I started the motor and drove the boat around, the sheets would dry faster. Sure enough the motor failed on me, but the boat kept going. Someone on shore said, ‘It looks like Butcher is two sheets to the wind.’” Bill went on to explain to us that the reason the lines going to sails are called sheets, is because of his original use of sheets as sails.

Bill told us he was surprised how quickly his idea spread.

Rovin’ Tar moored in “Heaven” Bay.

I humbly thanked Bill for what he had done. As we walked back to the fishing spot I thought about the importance of his invention. Had it not been for Bill people to this day would still be using power boats to go right where they wanted without tacking. There would be no sailing songs to sing. I thought how much Bill had enriched our history. I just couldn’t imagine Columbus coming to America in a power boat. He could never have afforded fuel to return. You couldn’t sail off into the sunset.

When he sat down to fish again, the boy told me how proud he was to know Mr. Butcher. I told him that some day there will be a statue to recognize what Bill has done. “It will be a fine bronze statue of Bill with his sailing hat on standing on top of a pile of manure with a shovel in his hand looking out over Lake Sakakawea.”

“Why would he be standing on a pile of manure?” the little boy asked.

“Well, I suppose so he could see farther out on the lake.”

Looking back at Rovin’ Tar we both anxiously awaited the next invention.

Mike Quinn operates Sail Sakakawea, a sailboat charter service on Lake Sakakawea, and resides in Hazen, ND. Sail Sakakawea can be contacted at 701-748-6111.